The US and China are strategic competitors in many arenas, but none is more critical in shaping the future of the world than the competition for dominance in artificial intelligence. AI will likely determine which country wins in the economic realm and, in turn, in the national security realm.
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In 2017, China announced its goal to become the world leader in AI by 2030. The US responded by creating a commission to review America’s competitive position and to advise Congress on what steps are needed to maintain US leadership in this important field. Former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt and former Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work were chosen from among fifteen appointed commissioners to lead the work.
Earlier this month, the commission issued its first set of recommendations to Congress.
Eric and Bob spoke about the challenges that the US faces in winning support from a skeptical private sector and in maintaining engagement with China while ensuring that that engagement doesn’t work to America’s detriment.
The interview below is adapted from an episode of Eye on AI. It comes ahead of a series of podcast episodes sponsored by the NSCAI, talking to the commissioners of six lines of effort about their first recommendations to Congress.
This is an important moment in our nation’s security and all Americans should pay attention to what the commission is doing.
ERIC: So, by an act of Congress, we were created about a year ago, and Bob and I were fortunate enough to be put in charge of the process.
AI matters a lot. It’s a new technology. It applies very broadly across industries, research, national defense and there was a consensus that we didn’t have our act together as a country. So, we set out with a two-stage process. The first stage was to get the facts, and then the second stage is to report on our recommendations.
I’m not aware of a group with this distinction being assembled before. We’ve got head of Microsoft research; we’ve got one of the greatest computer science researchers of his generation; the head of In-Q-Tel; the person who runs Amazon cloud.
BOB: We have Andrew Moore who was the head of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, now at Google. We have a former deputy secretary of defense. We have Eric. We have people who work at NASA. Put them together with the staff that we have, is quite different than any other commission that we’re aware of.
CRAIG: China, as you noted in your interim report, has a national AI strategy. A lot of countries have come out with national AI strategies. Are the commission’s efforts intended to draft a national AI strategy or is it only focused on national security?
BOB: There is a clear focus on maintaining AI advantages in the realm of national security. What we have concluded is that AI’s contribution to our economic prosperity is a national security issue. So, we have to get it right for the sake of both national security and economic prosperity. But I don’t believe we intend to come up with a US AI strategy. We are making recommendations to the Congress, who is our primary customer, on the legislative moves that they could make to make sure that we are in the best competitive position as possible.
ERIC: The country needs a collective AI strategy. This one is, I think, going to be the definitive one around national security, which is what we were chartered for.
AI in the United States needs to be done with American values. And American values are broadly liberal in the sense that they’re not authoritarian. They’re democratic, they encourage discussion, they don’t favor censorship. There are many, many aspects of those values which I think are easily included by my comment. We also pointed out in the report that the Chinese are functioning in an alternative system and there is a question of diffusion of that system.
The purpose of the interim report was to say, ‘there’s somebody on the horizon who is different in values from us who is quite capable.’
BOB: The Department of Defense has spent a lot of time trying to explain how it intends to use AI. It talks a lot about the ethical use of AI and how the department is going to make sure of that.
The model for this, I think, is the Defense Innovation Board’s AI ethics statement. They had numerous interchanges with American citizens and different companies throughout the country as they were developing this.
We are trying to explain to the American public the stakes of this competition and why it is important to their own welfare and security.
ERIC: The Defense Innovation Board’s AI principles recommendations for the DOD followed a 15-month study that was as inclusive as possible. There’s a long list of people who were consulted. The DIB recommendations define what AI is, they talk about existing frameworks and values and then they come up with five basic principles that should be followed.
If you’re using AI in a commercial or a military system, it needs to be under human control. It needs to avoid unintended bias. It has to be traceable, to be reliable and otherwise do what you want. We also took a strong position that there has to be some variant of the ability to stop the system if it goes awry. Those five principles are hard to argue against.
CRAIG: In your views, either from the point of view of the commission or individually, which is the greater threat, China’s economic competitiveness or their version of techno authoritarianism backed by artificial intelligence. So, the economic effect of China’s AI push or the global political effect of their AI backed governance model.
BOB: The United States has never faced a strategic competitor with a gross domestic product greater than 40% of its own. The Soviet Union just barely got there in the Cold War. Even if you added Japan and Germany together in World War II, it was right around 40%. China has surpassed in the United States in purchasing power parity already and if trends continue, there is a possibility they could surpass the United States in absolute GDP in the late twenties. So, we’ve never faced a strategic competitor with an economy greater than 40% of our GDP. We may be faced with a competitor that has an economy that’s bigger than us.
Then China, beyond AI, wants to become the world’s innovation leader. It wants to surpass the United States as the world’s innovation leader, not only in AI but in a wide variety of different things. So, they’re inextricably linked. If they meet their economic goals, they will be able to put more money in the technology innovation side. And this becomes a tremendous competitor for the United States. And that’s why the commission spends so much time saying, look, this is a competition that we could lose.
In the interwar period, everyone knew that mechanization was happening, everyone knew and had radios and everyone knew about the advances in aviation. It was the competitor that put them together in an operational concept they called Blitzkrieg that gave them an enormous advantage.
So, what the Department of Defense worries about is, could the Chinese in developing an operational concept, take machine learning in decision support systems, 5G in their communications, could they put them together in a way which would give them a battlefield advantage? That is something that is very difficult to judge. You have to actually know what they’re doing. So, we want to be able to keep all of the competitors in a tail chase with us.
ERIC: And I think Bob makes a very good point that there’s another kind of innovation, which is integration innovation.
So, you could imagine that we won the research component, that we invented this stuff new, but our competitor did a better job of integrating it.
It’s a new world of AI. It’s a new competitive world, and it’s important that the United States have a strategy that’s consistent with our values. We’re not China. We’re not Russia. We are the United States. We’re proud of ourselves. There are a bunch of tricky issues which are not easily solved by black and white solutions. We have to find a way to be engaged with China, but also careful to not be taken advantage of and to make sure that the US wins.
BOB: An American way of AI is beneficial not only to our country, but the entire world; a focus on data privacy, a focus on ethical use, a focus on not using AI to disrupt other countries, find fissures in their societies and break them apart. This is a competition that reflects our values, between a democratic vision of how AI can be very hopeful, and an authoritarian vision where it’s a little bit more dark. And it’s important that the American view of AI prevails over the long run.
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